Danielle Cooper-Williams is an Assistant Principal at an elementary school in North Philadelphia. Her school is made up of a predominantly African-American student body, and 88 percent of her students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Additionally, 27 percent of students in her school require special education services. I had a chance to talk with Danielle to share her perspective on urban education with the Blavity community and discuss the challenges facing her students.

Blavity: Where are you from?

Cooper-Williams: West Philadelphia

What’s your academic background?

C-W: BS from Howard University in human development and early childhood education, MA from Howard University in early childhood education

Why did you decide to become an educator?

C-W: My aunt, who was a big influence on my life, was a teacher for 35 years in a suburban school district outside of Philadelphia. While in school I always wanted to help her peers. In sixth grade, I was a peer tutor, and I helped a special needs student in my class finish assignments. I just always loved being able to show someone how to do something. Growing up I was the little girl with the stuffed animals as my students.

How long have you been in your current role?

Two years.

What do you enjoy the most about being an educator?

The people part — building relationships with people: students, staff, parents — making people feel valued and making them feel like their role is important.

What factors or issues do you think education policy experts tend to overlook when it comes to African-American populations?

The impact of race and culture on education, in general, is often overlooked in most education policy discussions.

Why is that?

Because race and culture is a taboo subject. It doesn’t get addressed explicitly by policy experts. It normally gets masked into socioeconomic discussions… there aren’t any prescriptions on how to fix the impact of race and culture; it tends to be something that we shy away from.

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What are some suggestions for embracing this policy concern?

Open dialogue and embracing the unknown, and being willing to have a difficult conversation. If we are working towards the same goal of empowering kids it will take some discomfort to assist our kids. The hard stuff is what will pay off for our kids.

With the official announcement of 2016 presidential candidates, where do you think education reform will land on the campaign trail?

I feel that it will be heavily campaigned about. All candidates will have to address something about their education policy, whether it relates to funds, teacher unions and rights, standardized testing…

What do you think candidates should focus on?

When it comes to education policy one piece that is missing is the idea of community and the community that our schools exist in. Having communities of parents that are knowledgeable and savvy education consumers.

There was a time when you sent your kids to the closest school to their house, and you trusted that school would prepare them for society. This idea has changed a lot over time, but the bottom line is still ‘what school can I send my child to in order for them to receive the best education possible?’

If we don’t have people who are aware of the options or what makes a school high-achieving, then throwing money at a situation or creating more charter schools doesn’t address the needs of the community. The community needs to be more educated…[they] need to know what it means to have an equitable education for their child.

Finish this sentence: the most important challenge facing my students is….

Parents and community knowing what to expect from their school. Parents being consumers of education and feeling empowered to demand a quality education from their schools. Parents and community being able to identify what makes a school a good school, and knowing how to navigate the school system and the political systems that exist around a school or community.

Lastly, Blavity is an online community that has a strong following among current African-American college students. For those students who have yet to decide on a career path, what are some reasons you think they should consider education?

They wouldn’t be in college if they didn’t have educators. Every person has had an educator or mentor that has reached back to pull forward and help them along the way. For young people of color who are doing well it is especially important to have a perspective on where you are going and where you came from. Although the need for black educators is important, it’s also important to know that education isn’t for everybody; it has a skill set like other professions. If people would open themselves to the field of education, they would realize they can apply their skill set to education in many different ways. We need to encourage young people who are the movers and shakers of their fields to be examples for the younger generation coming up, and just realize how much of an impact that could have on a young person.


D’Andre Ball is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. He is from the Bay Area.

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